When I heard of the launch of Nigerian-Cameroonian singer Dencia’s skin lightening cream, Whitenicious, I was not surprised. The truth of the matter is skin bleaching is still a common practice. And it’s not just in Nigeria or India, it’s right here at home. Don’t believe me? Just turn to the back of any Essence or Ebony magazine and you will find at least one advertisement for a skin lightening cream.
Just a few years back, while in Ghana, I had my first encounter with the skin lightening industry. (Before then, in my mind, I’d delineated such practices to the years before the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement of the mid-late 20th century.) There were billboard size ads promoting different brands of skin lightening products. I couldn’t believe my eyes; that is, until I saw a woman who was clearly in the process of lightening her complexion. Her once golden brown skin was now covered with a blotchy orange and peach cheetah-like print all over. I was blown away!
Truth: there are several lighting products available with the intended purpose of clearing blemishes and other skin spots and imperfections. But many people abuse the uses of such products, or just use the creams and bleaches specifically designed to whiten skin.
So, one must ask, why is it that in 2014 we, women (and men) of color, still don’t embrace the many shades of brown we come in? Could it be we are asking for too much too soon? After all, we’re less than 200 years removed from slavery and only a generation or two from the brown paper bag test. In many communities here and abroad, lighter skin equates to higher social standings, greater professional opportunities, and more advantageous marriage prospects. For many years in the United States it wasn’t an uncommon practice for fairer skinned blacks to pass as white- starting new families, marrying white persons, and completely abandoning all traces of their blackness. imageIn India and parts of Asia, the increased status of marriageability for lighter skinned women is so hight that products like Lactacyd, a whitening vaginal wash, are top selling products. In Australia, fair skinned aboriginal children with “European features” were taken by the government and raised as white. (This practice went on from the late 1800 until the 1970’s!
So, leading with the notion that many of the consumers of these products are subject to beauty standards rooted in colonialism and slavery, and perpetuated by the popular culture, we still have a responsibility to create change, and promote and reinforce EVERY image of people of color as beautiful. And we must do this with the understanding that attempting to measure up to one person or another’s standard of beauty (white or black) is detrimental to the development of a healthy sense of self worth. Thus, we must teach our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, and ourselves the importance of loving, embracing, and finding the beauty in, what young entrepreneur Gabrielle J. Williams calls, our “unique value”.
For more information on beauty standards in the African American community, check out the research of Dr. Kimberly Brown at The Blackberry Preserve. To learn more about Australia’s stolen generations of aboriginal children pick up The Stolen Generations: Separation of Aboriginal Children from Their Families in Western Australia and check out this video: http://vimeo.com/15938553